Rocky Mountain National Park, Colorado
On the morning of September 5, 1992 Lulu, Pick, and I decided, rather spur of the moment, to hike to Andrew's Glacier Tarn—we had read about this trail at the visitor center the day before, and thought it sounded like an awesome hike. The next morning we drove to the trailhead and stopped to take a look—the description of the trail on the park kiosk sounded doable, so we gathered our hiking gear and set off down the trail. We began our hike at the Bear Lake parking lot at around 7:00 am, but unfortunately, the Info Station was closed at that time, so we didn't get a map or any trail guides—c’est la vie.
The climb up to Andrew's Glacier is rated as strenuous, and for good reason—the trail begins at an elevation of 9,240 feet and climbs to 11,700 feet—at that altitude you can be sure that breathing is likely to be very labored, but the view makes up for the struggle.
The trail starts off as a pleasant walk through pine forests, weaving its way past several crystal clear alpine lakes. The first lake is, of course, Bear Lake, located right beside the parking lot—near the lake there are self-guiding pamphlets available that identify some of the flora found in the area, be sure to pick one up for your hike. As you continue on down the main trail, you will come to Nymph Lake, just 0.5 miles from the trailhead. This beautiful lake has several lily pads floating in its dark blue waters, and its mirror like surface reflects the grandeur of the Rocky Mountain peaks. This pristine mountain scenery practically lures the hiker into an early rest stop, and the beauty makes it difficult to tear yourself away from the magnificent panorama, but rest assured—other wonderful vistas await. The second lake (our favorite) that you encounter along the trail is the appropriately named Dream Lake—located just 1.1 miles from the trailhead, it gives the average hiker a big pay-off for such short walk. Dream Lake has crystal clear blue water, and on a summer afternoon, the sunlight dances on the rippling waves creating a pool full of sparkling diamonds. In addition, it is surrounded by the lofty peaks of the Rocky Mountains, setting the scene for a quintessential Colorado photograph. We paused here for a few photo ops and a snack break before hiking on to the next lake. Last, but not least, is Emerald Lake—a rugged setting of rocks, water, and mountain peaks—with Hallet Peak dominating the pristine Rockies landscape. Once we reached Emerald Lake, a worthy destination in and of itself, we had hiked 1.8 miles, and gained 605 feet in elevation, but the goal is Andrew's Glacier so we push onward.
Leaving Emerald Lake, the trail up to Andrew's Glacier is absolutely spectacular— passing through forest, boulder fields, and tundra. While hiking through the boulder fields, we could hear the high-pitched whistle of pikas (also called rock rabbits or whistling hares)—with their calls becoming more frequent as we got closer to the glacier. When we stopped to pause for a break we would scan the rocks in hopes of catching a glimpse of the cute little furry animals, and several times we spotted them sunning themselves on the rocks—spotting them can be difficult, since they are very good at blending in with their rocky environment.
Trekking through the boulder field is the most difficult part of this hike, as the bulk of the elevation gain is made here as you pass through what is known as The Loch—indeed, some scrambling is actually necessary on this part of the trail, but most of it is just steep hiking. As you get closer to the glacier the temperature really starts to drop, so be prepared with layers of clothing—we decided to put on our jackets as we got closer, but even they barely kept out the biting wind.
The last part of the trail to the tarn, or glacial melt, is really steep—so steep that your view of the glacier and the tarn are blocked by the angle of the rock. When the trail finally reaches the top, you still have to pull yourself up over the ridge in order to be eye level with Andrew's Glacier—I remember pulling myself up and over the rocks for my first glimpse of Andrew, it was the coolest thing I had ever seen! This huge white snowy mass was sitting in the middle of two peaks—Thatchtop on the left and Otis on the right—and it almost seemed as if it were alive. It had a raised portion in its center and it terminated in the dark green water of its tarn. The wind coming off of the glacial melt water was so strong it nearly blew us off the trail, and the bitter cold actually stung my eyes, causing them to tear, making photography quite a challenge. I snapped a few photos, looked around briefly, and then lowered myself down below the rocks. The wind instantly stopped, and I savored the respite from the cold. I looked back at the top of the glacier and thought about how fun it would be to slide down its snowy slope—maybe next time! (Note: It is possible to climb the face of the glacier to the top, where you are then standing on the Continental Divide, then, if conditions are right, it is possible to glissade back down.)
Standing at the base of the tarn, we savored the views from our well-earned lofty mountain perch, and then we headed back down the trail—taking in all the great scenery for the second time. When we reached a fork in the trail, just past The Loch, we decided to take a different route back to the car—just to vary the scenery a little. Along this route, we passed Alberta Falls, bypassing the lakes that we enjoyed on our ascent to Andrew's Glacier—from the waterfall, it was 2.7 miles to the Glacier Gorge Junction Trailhead, and from there it was about another mile to the car. We finished our hike at about 3:30 pm—happy, tired, and on a Rocky Mountain high!